Weeks 40-43 (11th Nov-9th Dec) – The Deep South, USA

As we reached Sweet Home Alabama, it became summer again. We saved a tiny bird stuck in a lamp in the pretty town of Fayetteville, then headed to our name-sake city, Birmingham, Alabama—the Magic City. Named after our city due to its industrial nature, their Birmingham is actually nothing like ours, much smaller and with little to no city centre. We explored the historic abandoned Sloss Furnaces, a little creepy with some leftover Halloween decorations (an electric chair, really?), saw the Storyteller statue at Five Points (supposedly Satanic according to the guy who told us not to photograph it, but I thought it was cute), and admired the iron man statue in Vulcan Park overlooking the city. We took the opportunity to recall some of the vital inventions that our Birmingham, city of 1000 trades, gave the world, and developed a new sense of pride for our hometown.

After a brief stop in Hattiesburg, Mississippi (nothing to see there), we drove on into swampy Louisiana, with cypress trees overhanging the roads and wooden houses on stilts. As we crossed the lengthy bridge into New Orleans, we were rewarded with a beautiful sunset, then punished with a horrendous motel that we promptly left, so bad that we opted to spend the night at a truck stop instead. The suburbs of New Orleans are…interesting, sort of like being in Grand Theft Auto. Thankfully, the city centre and particularly the French Quarter are beautiful. After exploring the filming locations of Interview with a Vampire, trying traditional creole cooking, and discovering a maze-like bookshop, we checked out the new town—streets lined with Christmas-light-adorned palm trees.

In other news, Peb’s iPhone took a high-dive into a cup of coffee on an uneven road, leaving us with no GPS or Internet, so the following day we struggled to find somewhere to watch the Panthers game. In the NFL’s home country, it’s surprisingly difficult to find places to watch it! We drove aimlessly through a few dead-end towns in the very south of Louisiana and finally treated ourselves to a night at the Ramada and a microwaved Sunday dinner.

From there, we managed to find camping at the wonderful Palmetto Island State Park, where we discovered a tiny frog in the electric box and lizards in the laundry room. We spent the evening sat in the van watching our first armadillos rooting around outside, and a cheeky raccoon eat a lizard while staring at us. The following day, with a tornado warning issued, we did the only sensible thing and got a canoe out in a bayou full of alligators. The park ranger assured us that the 7-foot alligator following our boat was friendly, and since she seemed to be correct, Peb decided to feed him like a duck—just feet away from us.

The rest of the Creole Nature drive through the swamps delivered many more alligators, some just relaxing in people’s back yards. To my delight, we spotted a few flocks of beautiful Roseate Spoonbills, despite being eaten alive by mosquitos in the process. After almost running out of petrol in the remote far south, we got the ferry across the river and saw the sea for the first time since Vancouver—albeit the Gulf of Mexico, so not exactly blue like Australia and Fiji had taught me to expect.

Finally, we reached Texas. Our first stop was Houston, a very slick city, where we hung out in Discovery Green in the hot November sun, then marvelled at the Gerald B. Hines waterfall park for a while. On to Austin, we camped at McKinney Falls State Park, admired the impressive Longhorns’ stadium (both being Longhorns fans), the State Capitol, and the cool Firehouse bar hidden behind a bookcase, and watched “My All American” about Longhorn Freddie Steinmark at a local cinema.

We hadn’t seen a familiar face since Vancouver, and it was lovely to catch up with my friend Clare and her husband John, who had flown over for the Thanksgiving Day game of their Cowboys against our Panthers. Together, we made our way to Fort Worth and the old town Stockyards, full of cowboy shops and saloons. We saw the Fort Worth Longhorn herd cattle drive down the main street and then the pretty Christmas lights in downtown Fort Worth.

We inadvertently stayed in the hotel where JFK spent his last night, before visiting the JFK museum in the infamous Dallas book depository, and were baffled by people taking selfies at the X in the road where he was shot. In preparation for the game, we went on a Cowboys stadium tour, scoring a few touchdowns out on the field and kicking some field goals. Our luck continued and the Panthers won the game convincingly. We missed our dinner reservations waiting in the hammering rain to get back to the hotel, but we gave our thanks in TGIs instead.

We said farewell to Clare and John in Dallas, and got the approval to sell our Canadian van there, so we embarked on a final road trip to Amarillo. Unlike the sandy, barren photos I’ve seen of Amarillo, it was covered in snow when we arrived and unexpectedly freezing. We camped down in the canyon at the epic Palo Duro Canyon State Park, home to a few members of the official Texas Longhorn herd. I felt a little like Snow White as our van was surrounded by animals, a nearby gopher digging, turkeys asleep in the trees above our van, woodpeckers swooping past, and tiny deer strolling around who were brave enough to come over and sniff me. We even saw the emblematic coyote tracking across a field, and hiked 6 hours across red rock and sand to Palo Duro’s famous lighthouse rock.

In Amarillo, we went to the strange Cadillac Ranch, a line of rusted Cadillacs upended in the mud, where you’re actually encouraged to spray-paint. After dinner at the Big Texan, a traditional Texas steakhouse where the record for eating a 72oz is 4 minutes set by a tiny lady, we headed back to Dallas to meet a potential buyer for our van. With mixed emotions, we accepted his offer.

Our final night was in Loyd Park, a campsite by a lake, and full of adorable squirrels playing. We were indescribably sad to sell our buddy Mack. Our home for the past 4 months, we hoped he was going to a good home, but as we drove away in the taxi, it felt like we were leaving a part of ourselves in Dallas. We checked into the Hawthorne Suites near the airport, and with some spare time and money until we were due to be in New York, we booked flights to Mexico City on a whim. Adelante!


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